We are so sad to have to move Charlie Watts to the top of our queue of planned Rolling Stones posts. He passed away today at age 80. I can’t think of any rock and roll figure who was more genuinely beloved by fans. Not many rock stars are deemed “cuddly” but he sort of had that vibe. My older brothers had been fans of the Stones since their first trip to the States, but I first became aware of Charlie himself in high school from my friends Mary and Val, who thought he was cute and loveable. This was circa 1980, when the band’s most recent records Some Girls and Emotional Rescue (and soon Tattoo You) had put them back on top again, even with kids such as ourselves who were all born around the time of “Satisfaction”.
Watts had been a graphic designer first, then played with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, finally joining the Stones in 1963. His original orientation was jazz and hints of that filtered into everything he did in subtle ways, especially noticeable in their early rhythm and blues numbers. In emulation of my brother, a professional drummer, I played drums for awhile in high school, and I learned by attempting to follow along with my favorite records with headphones on, mostly dinosaur rock, which naturally included lots of Stones songs, especially singles from 1965 and 1966. I love for example that simple but infectious thing Watts does on the turnaround at the ends of lines in “Get Off Of My Cloud” . LOVE how he goes crazy — so economically — in the climactic verse in “Paint It, Black”. I love the tom-toms going into the chorus of “We Love You”. Love his cymbal accents in EVERYTHING. Those crashes on “19th Nervous Breakdown”! He had this knack for the perfect punctuation for dramatic effect. One of my favorite songs to listen to for the Stones’ group dymanic is “Under My Thumb”, with marimba, piano, guitars all carrying this hypnotic rhythm forward like they’re all part of the same organism, and yet it would be Charlie who would cut against it, making it a song, not just a jam. And of course, his minimalist style dovetailed perfectly with the needs of the disco era on those mid-period records. Manages to sound like HIM, not a drum machine.
From what I understand, cancer is what took him, hence this rude, sudden news. It had recently been announced that he would be sitting out the upcoming tour. It’s only Mick and Keith left from the original band, and Bill Wyman, who’d quit. I’d already been chomping at the bit to do posts about the long-departed Brian Jones and Ian Stewart. No plans at all to do anything on the late joiners, though.
Hats off to one who set the rhythm not just for his own band, but countless who came after. I hope he doesn’t go to the wrong cloud!